Why we’re boycotting the Sri Lanka summit

Commonwealth Flag     In an article written to the Canadian Newspaper i Politics ‘Why we’re boycotting the Sri Lanka summit’ John Baird said “Despite Canada’s efforts, the Commonwealth, and the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG), failed to utilize this summit as an opportunity to address long-concerns and to catalyze meaningful change for the people of Sri Lanka.

 Canada takes its membership in the Commonwealth very seriously. It is for this simple reason that we believe in upholding the basic principles it stands for: freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law. Without them, what does the Commonwealth stand for?

Despite Canada’s efforts, the Commonwealth, and the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG), failed to utilize this summit as an opportunity to address long-concerns and to catalyze meaningful change for the people of Sri Lanka. The Commonwealth failed to put any pressure on a regime that has so blatantly ignored international calls for change.  Despite CMAG’s enhanced mandate, which was based on the recommendation of the Commonwealth Eminent Persons Group and approval by heads of government, it refused to put Sri Lanka on the agenda to allow members an opportunity to discuss these shortcomings.

We failed to use this when it mattered most. As a consequence, we gave this regime a free pass to continue down this path.

The prime minister’s decision not to attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Sri Lanka was based entirely on upholding the principles of the Commonwealth. This was not a decision taken in haste. It was carefully considered with one aim in mind: for Canada to send a message about our displeasure with an organization that has failed to stand up for its fundamental principles. How can an organization like the Commonwealth reward a country like Sri Lanka, not just with hosting a summit, but by allowing it to chair the organization for two years? And after no meaningful reconciliation following a brutal and violent struggle?

It was our sincere hope that the government of Sri Lanka would take the necessary steps to secure basic freedoms for all its people, yet the Rajapaksa regime continues to commit abhorrent human rights violations as it actively seeks to undermine the basic freedoms of democracy and the rule of law.

Reports of widespread human rights violations are rampant. Opposition members and journalists being incarcerated. Harassment of minorities continues, as do allegations of extrajudicial killings.

Earlier this year, the unconstitutional impeachment of Sri Lankan Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake was an open attack on the independent judiciary and rule of law. It was also a clear violation of the

Commonwealth’s Latimer House Principles governing the relationship between the three branches of government. Previously, the Commonwealth suspended members for actions like this. Now they are silent.

Four years after the end of the war, the military presence in the north of the country remains considerable. The military is prominent in areas of civilian administration and economic activities, to the detriment of real development in that region.

According to the UN panel of experts, this is a government that is responsible for as many as 40,000 civilian deaths over the final five months of the country’s civil war. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay stated as recently as September that there have been no new or comprehensive efforts from the Sri Lankan government to probe these atrocities.

This is a government that missed its own deadlines for the implementation of the recommendations set by the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission.

This authoritarian trend needs to be addressed. The Commonwealth has refused — not for a lack of trying on Canada’s part — to formally confront these reports, which is a complete abandonment of its founding principles and an obfuscation of its responsibilities.

Canada was one of the most vocal proponents of reconciliation in Sri Lanka. We have invested deeply in it since 2009. That is why I sent a fact-finding mission to Colombo consisting of Chris Alexander, Rick Dykstra and Senator Vern White. Minister Jason Kenney visited in January.

That is why my special envoy for the Commonwealth, Senator Hugh Segal, visited Colombo this past March. Many of the people the senator spoke to were afterwards harassed by authorities — or were petrified to even speak with him due to the probable repercussions. A new era for Sri Lankans hasn’t been realized, and it is not due to a lack of effort by Canada.

Canada has relentlessly pursued action on fundamental Commonwealth values, including:

  • more than 30 public statements on the situation in Sri Lanka;
  • ten separate Parliamentary interventions;
  • 25 interventions in multilateral fora ranging from the Commonwealth to the United Nations;
  • 89 bilateral interventions with a range of Commonwealth countries, including Sri Lanka.

These actions yielded “no new or comprehensive effort to independently or credibly investigate the allegations which have been the concern of the Human Rights Council.” That is coming from the United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights — not from Stephen Harper, Jason Kenney, Hugh Segal or myself.

Opposition parties in Canada have been united behind this decision. Public statements and parliamentary interventions urged the prime minister not to attend.

The purpose of my colleague Deepak Obhrai’s attendance will be to enable Canada to partake in some events surrounding the summit which will allow us to shed light on the true tragedy in Sri Lanka.

There are countries that abuse human rights around the world, and we realize that is the world we live in. Sometimes these countries are given seats on UN bodies, the Francophonie, or the Commonwealth. There is no one-size-fits-all response. I have found that is not how international relations works.

Our approach to CHOGM is one rooted in principle, with respect for the institution of the Commonwealth and what it represents. As a member state, and a leading financial supporter of the Commonwealth, we want our voice heard and we want the values we pledged to uphold as a Commonwealth nation cherished.

There should be no room for moral ambiguity. We must always stand up for those who cannot stand for themselves. We will remain engaged with the people of Sri Lanka, and work to secure their basic freedoms and rights.

The Commonwealth has a proud history. When it fails to stand up for the fundamental principles it has enshrined, and previously acted upon, the entire organization is undermined.

A better day will come for the people of Sri Lanka. And Commonwealth nations should be leading the way to that better future — not rewarding the status quo.( John Baird – iPolitics)

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